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Evaluating Authority

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Created :January 26, 2000
Reviewed: August 1, 2002
Latest Update: June 26, 2004

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Old Material That May Still Be Useful:

The following links are lower on this same file. They will eventually be moved to other files and the links added above.

Taking Responsibility for the Validity of Your Sources

Review by Jeanne Curran
Added on July 3, 1998.

On July 3, 1998, InfoBeat, a provider of free news by e-mail, alerted me to a retraction of a recent news story.

"CNN Television and Time Magazine retracted Thursday a report that the U.S. military killed U.S. defectors during the Vietnam War by using deadly Sarin nerve gas. . . . CNN News Group Chairman Tom Johnson said CNN acknowledged "serious faults in the use of the sources who provided...the original reports and therefore retract the Tailwind story. . . .CNN's retraction followed an investigation of the story by a media attorney, Floyd Abrams, after denials by Vietnam War veterans."

CNN and Time Magazine investigated further because people responded, questioned the authority of the source. And the people who questioned seem to have had valid truth claims.

This story illustrates the importance of our always checking the validity of any source presented to us as authoritative. Use your common sense. Question. Legitimacy and discourse depend on the willingness of the system to listen in good faith to all claims. Short of that, the system privileges its own subjectivity and becomes an auto-poietic non-learning system it marches on with no regard to the citizens who are its essence.

Update on July 6, 1998:

April Oliver, the CNN producer of the "report about the use of nerve gas during the Vietnam war," was fired . She claims that she had done an adequate job of checking resources and "deserved a chance to answer the allegations against her." She "accused the network of backing down under pressure." Read the whole update at InfoBeat. (Time-related link. Look for story on N.Y Times site if you miss it.)

Just a little later the L.A. Times did an editorial, objecting to the fact that a well known newscaster was given a by-line with Time, and yet claimed not even to have looked closely at the material. These are issues that will continue to surface in the future, as we negotiate this new-found shared responsibility of personal and community decisions about the nature and credibility of authority as we have traditionally recognized it.

Physicists, Too, Must Ponder Ambiguity

Link to the neutrino story, which broke on June 5, 1998, to get a realistic sense of the extent to which even physicists must continue to evaluate authorities. Their theories have predicted the existence of neutrinos for some time. But it took the experiments at Super Kamiokande to establish their existence and the fact that there mass is not zero, but measurable. We are constantly learning more and more about the world in which we live. We must also learn to evaluate the new discoveries, to decide how to take them into our belief systems without suffering the trauma that comes with too much change.

Along with this story we report a speech by President Clintonto MIT's 1998 graduating class, in which he reminds us of the importance of finding the funds for research like Super-K. Immediately after the announcement of the measurement of mass in neutrino's Japan announced that it planned to cut seriously the Super-K funding. The U.S., as Clinton notes, had already done so. The validity claims of pure science, which may not be immediately recognizable as altering the bottom line of profits, are none the less important claims on our resources. How do we balance not just all the many interest-group claims, but also the claims for short term and long term needs?

On Evaluating Authority from Many Validity Claims: Neutrinos Have Mass First in a series of comments on the breaking story of neutrino mass. Added June 5, 1998.

Merton: Garbage In, Garbage Out

As the computer age dawned, Perls cautioned us "Garbage In, Garbage Out." Somehow the computer printout looks so impresive! But, said Perls, when the data you put into the computer was badly measured, not valid, inaccurately collected, the results that come out are no more dependable than the data that went in. When Orange County set up its wonderful new criminal justice computer many years ago, it was so proud of its database. Is it accurate, criminal justice professional asked. Why, of course, Orange County assured them. We have checked every record as it was keyed in from the police reports. Good quality data. And who, asked the criminal justice professionals, guaranteed the quality of what was written on the original reports? We forget human error in matters of judgment, situation, context, perspective, and look only to accurate translation of whatever was written, by whomever, under whatever circumstances. Yes, Fritz Perls. Grabage in, garbage out.

But quibbling such as this misses the point that scientists are careful with data collection and analysis. Robert K. Merton quotes from his own Social Theory and Social Structure in the Preface to On the Shoulders of Giants:

I have chosen a "compressed selective quotation in preference to roundabout and risky paraphrase as I refer to 'the rock-bound difference between the finished versions of scientific work as they appear in print and the actual course of inquiry followed by the inquirer. The difference is a little like that between textbooks on 'scientific method' and the ways in which scientists actually think, feel, and go about their work. The books on methods present ideal patterns: how scientists ought to think, feel and act, but these tidy normative patterns, as everyone who has engaged in {such} inquiry knows, do not reproduce the typically untidy, opportunistic adaptations that scientists make in the course of their inquiries. Typically, the scientific paper or monograph presents an immaculate appearance which reporduces little or ntohing of the intuitive leaps, false starts, mistakes, loose ends and happy accidents that actually cluttered up the inquiry."

Notes for Review of On the Shoulders of Giants

This wonderful, book of Merton's is one giant intellectual game in which he traces the origin of the phrase "On the Shoulders of Giants" all the way back to Newton. It is an incredible example of a scholar checking sources, and playing with the material as he does so.

The theme of the book, of course, reminds us that there are no "new ideas" under the sun. Each idea is born of collaboration as one scholar builds upon the work and ideas of those who have gone that path before him/her. Recent research in academic scholarship stresses the importance of collaboration, of sharing perspectives, that we may build our ideas and theories more effectively.

Guides to Assessing Authority

  • Distinguishing Scholarly Journals from Other Periodicals
    Cornell Library. Link added July 25, 1999. Link checked August 1, 2002.
  • Building on Authority Taking off from a point or structure and incorporating that into new concepts, new structures. This is what the building of theory is all about. This is also what the building of public discourse is all about: collaborative reasoning.
    Link updated June 19, 1999.

    Finding Left/Right Position of Author
    Beginning of lists to identify authors by their political/philosophical positions,
    for use in evaluating their works. Lists cannot give you
    definitive information on an author's position. There may be none.
    Most of us shift back and forth. But they may give you some guidance in determining
    basic orientation. When you come across such classifications,
    share them with us. Link added June 5, 1999.